Howard, Thome make some progress; Utley status quo

Ryan Howard is recovering from inactivity caused by an infection near his surgically repaired Achilles. (David Maialetti/Staff file photo)

ST. LOUIS — Progress has been made in relation to the rehabs of Ryan Howard and Jim Thome down in Clearwater, Fla.

Meanwhile, Chase Utley continued taking a limited number of ground balls before Thursday night's game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

There is still no timetable on any of the above players, but moving forward is always the preferred direction for rehabilitating baseball players on the disabled list.

Howard, recovering from a long stretch of inactivity caused by an infection near his surgically repaired left Achilles tendon, participated in what assistant general manager Scott Proefrock called "a simulated game" Wednesday down in Florida.

In essence, Howard took live batting practice against organizational pitchers who are in the extended spring training program.

"It's a chance for him to see some pitches with some velocity rather than just having a coach throw to him," Proefrock said.

Thome, out since April 29 with a strained lower back, hit in an extended spring training game, which is probably the same format in which Howard will first be eased back into competition. Extended spring-training games involve mostly young organizational players who are waiting to begin short seasons in Willliamsport or the Gulf Coast League.

Players do not have to start the clock on their rehab assignments when they play in extended spring-training games.

Utley, trying to return from a left knee injury, took two sessions of hitting before Thursday's game, but only briefly fielded grounders, which is the far bigger test for the second baseman's ailing knee.

So what has to happen for Utley to progress beyond pregame team activities?

"I think it's a matter of him feeling like he's ready to go play in a game," manager Charlie Manuel said. "I think it's a matter of him being healthy enough and thinking that he's ready. I think we've been through what we went through with him last year and we definitely want to make sure that he's ready to play and that he can endure some of the pain or (have) no pain if possible.

"That's what we're working for, to have no pain playing. I think when you talk about how much he plays and where he plays, I think as long as he has pain, it's still the same."

The notion of Utley playing somewhere other than second base was raised. Manuel does not think that's even worth thinking about until Utley is healthy.

"First of all, we have to see where he's at and how he feels about it if he can get to a point where he has absolutely no pain," Manuel said. "I think the pain thing is what holds him up. He can have pain at first base, in left field, at second base, wherever. I think we have to get him to a place where we can get him on the field first."

In other news, catcher Carlos Ruiz was back in the lineup and hitting cleanup for the second straight game after suffering a bruised right wrist when he was hit by a foul tip Wednesday night against Washington. Disabled righthander Vance Worley (elbow inflammation) made 50 throws at 60 feet off flat ground before the game and "came through it fine," according to Proefrock.